RICHMOND FONTAINE The Fitzgerald (Union)
With The Fitzgerald, Richmond Fontaine (a they, not a he) have come closer than anyone to setting the bottled essence of Raymond Carvers parched, desolate short stories to music. These songs are arid tales of broken lives in a down-at-heel casino town, where the only direction away from bad is towards worse. Think Nebraska, except with better songs and sensitively expanded arrangements, and maybe youll appreciate why The Fitzgerald will surely become appreciated by a fortunate few as an Americana classic.
The Fitzgeralds 11 tracks are utterly self-contained, yet it doesnt seem too far-fetched to imagine them each forming part of a greater patchwork, in the same way that Robert Altman assembled the interweaving threads of his film Short Cuts from separate Carver stories. The sound is generally so dusty and sparse that the wind that whips around Wellhorn Yards seems like a tacky extravagance: these people achieve so much with their words and music that such Floydian effects are redundant.
Songs like Black Road, Casino Lights and Exit 194B spool out their shattered plots in a sequence of snapshots that lead like a breadcrumb trail towards an inescapable fate. The tantalising omissions seem as important as what we are told, the chronology frequently twisted, compelling the listener to reassemble the whole in retrospect.
Although the exemplary musicianship is understated throughout exactly what these songs need vocalist Willy Vlautin inevitably garners the most plaudits. His cracked, broken voice inhabits these characters, whether hes a youngster spooked by the discovery of a dead body whilst on a camping trip with his dad (Incident At Conklin Creek), a terminally ill lady hospitalised by domestic violence or the janitor who befriends her (The Janitor).
The aching Disappeared is all slow, swaying submission and apocalyptic anti-chorus (He disappeared into heartache); on Laramie, Wyoming and The Janitor a wall of misfortune piles up against the protagonists, with just the occasional glimmer of hope in the blackness and bleakness. The sublime Dont Look And It Wont Hurt is the closest The Fitzgerald comes to a single, with so much melody and momentum compressed inside its two-and-a-half minutes. Closer Making It Back might at first sound like an anticlimactic afterthought, but acquaintance reveals it to be the albums wellspring of redemption: home, alcohol, The Pogues on repeat and a lovers arms; paradise found.
RICHMOND FONTAINE Post To Wire (El Cortez)
Maybe shocking is a bit strong, but its certainly surprising to hear Richmond Fontaine sounding so, um, embellished on this precursor to their brilliant 2005 album The Fitzgerald, not just sonically percussion on most tracks, female vocals on two but also structurally, with spoken word postcards overlaying a conceptual continuity onto songs that might otherwise remain unrelated. Nevertheless, songwriter Willy Vlautins characters seem to be drawn from a storytelling continuum that links all his work hes also a novelist together.
Barely Losing is a series of gloriously abandoned Polaroids from a gambling holiday, the lyrics referencing the titular hotel of Post To Wires aforementioned follow-up; the pell-mell Montgomery Park could almost be mistaken for rock music. The harsh, strident theatricality of Hallway jars, and the unsteady, swaying "Willamette is mired in the ever-present threat of musical, as well as familial, collapse. Always On The Ride offers fraternal support in the face of overwhelming odds, trusting in inevitably finite reserves of luck, a commodity that lies at the core of much of Vlautins writing. The instrumentals Valediction and (Walters On The Lam) are undoubtedly pleasant, but any Richmond Fontaine song will inevitably sound like a makeweight without Vlautins exceptional storytelling. The title track, though, might be my favourite Richmond Fontaine moment, although its oddly atypical of their catalogue in not being a narrative work; instead, its more of a still life, catching a relationship right at the tipping point, the protagonists gingerly attempting to negotiate their way back to safety.
If Post To Wire has a failing (and I did say if), its that it seems a little over-emphatic compared to the stripped down, sparse The Fitzgerald. Its almost as it the band are afraid that the songs will appear spindly and frail without substantial arrangements and conceptual threads to bind them together. Also, the later album strips away the sentimentality that occasionally rose-tints Post To Wire. Both albums share an abrupt narrative style, dropping the listener right at the centre of their plots, with neither baggage nor backstory. The Fitzgerald remains my preferred Richmond Fontaine album, but given the level of excellence displayed by Post To Wire choosing between them is really a matter of splitting hairs.
RICHMOND FONTAINE / BOB FRANK & JOHN MURRAY The Point, Cardiff 23 May 2007
This was my first visit to The Point, a cosy venue that was formerly a church, and which now seems to be raking in its due portion of the wages of sin via possibly the most exorbitant bar prices Ive ever encountered.
A little post-gig investigation reveals that Bob Frank released a self-titled album on Vanguard in 1972. He doesnt allude to it tonight, and seems happy to play second on the bill to young upstarts like Richmond Fontaine. Alongside Tupelo resident John Murray, and, for the last few numbers, Richmond Fontaines steel pedaller Paul Brainard, he sings murder ballads fashioned from the back pages of American history, like a Wisconsin Death Trip for the ears. There are tales of cowboys gone bad, lynchings, tornadoes and cold, calculating crimes rooted in hot-blooded passions. Perhaps inevitably, Frank & Murrays music is a little light on radio-friendly choruses, but at least theyre about something. I kept comparing them favourably with the procession of interchangeable female folkies Ive seen supporting the various permutations of Paul Buchanan and/or The Blue Nile Ive been lucky enough to attend concerts by, who invariably wrote songs that were important only to themselves. When people are dying horribly in a song it gives it a somewhat more far-reaching resonance. Although the duos habit of introducing their songs with a brief précis and some historical context was commendable, if anything it deflated some of the suspense and intrigue of what they were about to play. Within the limited sphere of what they tried to do, though, they achieved a lot.
Its been remarked upon elsewhere, but it bears repeating: Richmond Fontaine really do seem like an affable buncha guys. Their performance is totally unshowy, refreshingly free of instrumental grandstanding or rock star heroics, just clean, uncluttered musicianship in the service of some wonderful songs. They open with the glorious Four Walls, its concluding crescendo stretched to Mogwai-esque levels of intensity. They follow it with heartfelt and humble readings of Barely Losing and Through, from the marvellous Post To Wire album, before diving into a sequence of songs from their latest long player Thirteen Cities, which flow together so seamlessly, bridged by instrumental passages, that it seems rude to interrupt with well-deserved applause.
Elsewhere, the evening offers the tough but principled lament for a Mexican immigrant I Fell Into Painting Houses In Phoenix, Arizona, just voice, acoustic guitar and harmonica, and a measured, and, dare I say it, haunting A Ghost I Became. Hallway builds to another one of those intense climaxes, edgier, more brutal and dramatic than on album. A couple of Post To Wires slenderer moments make the setlist its gentle instrumental conclusion Valediction and the narrative fragment (Postcard From California) as well as its title track, possibly the Fontaines finest moment yet. Judging from the roar that greeted its announcement by lead vocalist/guitarist/songwriter/author Willie Vlautin, Im not alone in holding that opinion. I was a little disappointed that Vlautin didnt drop more clues about his songs, but then again, as with the support act, it might have caused the beguiling sense of mystery that shrouds them to evaporate. Also, it seemed uncharacteristically curmudgeonly to drop just one song from what for me remains their best album, The Fitzgerald, into the setlist, an admittedly sublime and stately Exit 194B. At the start of the encore Vlautin took the stage alone, prompting the, uh, enthusiastic fan in front of me to heckle We dont want you, we wanted the rest of the band!. Pinsharp Willie responded, This is where I get to play what I want!, ahead of a performance of Wilson Dunlop, a song that hasnt yet made it as far as a record.
What the above parade of facts doesnt really capture is how great they were. Compared with a Manic Street Preachers gig I attended a few days earlier, wherein the Welshmen turned in a competent set, albeit one that rapidly solidified into a predictable mix of new material and big singles, tonight it was practically impossible to anticipate what was coming next. All that could be counted on was that it would be interesting, entertaining and performed with the utmost sincerity. Those arent qualities that shift albums or tickets or t-shirts or ringtones in any significant quantities, but its a crazy mixed-up world we live in. Perhaps not coincidentally, its the crazy mixed-up folk who live in it that populate Richmond Fontaines often brilliant songs.
RICHMOND FONTAINE Live At The Doug Fir Lounge: Portland, Oregon September 23, 2005 (El Cortez)
Im not usually one for buying CDs at concerts heck, Im not usually one for buying albums of any kind unless theyve scored highly in at least two independent reviews but in a rare moment of crazed spontaneity I found myself unable to leave Richmond Fontaines excellent gig at The Point in Cardiff last May without taking another hopefully excellent Richmond Fontaine gig home with me.
And so Live At The Doug Fir Lounge: Portland, Oregon September 23, 2005, an album as unpretentious as its title, proved to be. Recorded just after the release of their defining opus The Fitzgerald, all but one of that albums tracks are represented here, with the balance mostly made up by delights from previous album Post To Wire. The result is totally unaffected music making; Vlautin fumbles the lyrics on occasion, or dissolves into giggles, but unless youre an absolute stickler for narrative accuracy it wont detract from the listening experience.
Welhorn Yards is all the better for the absence of the album versions distracting sound effects, and theres something delightful about the steady, measured drum pattern underpinning Exit 194B. Barely Losing remains a fragrant fantasy of blue-collar escape realistic goals bringing realistic gains, succinctly summed up by the titles positive spin. Maybe it sounds a little more deliberate, stodgy even, than the album version, but it only makes it seem even more personable. Hallway builds into a broiling sonic storm cloud, Collin Oldhams cello accompaniment lending it Godspeed You Black Emperor! overtones. Written by band buddy Mike Coykendall, Havent Got Forever is an acerbic, wistful study of wasted time that chimes perfectly with the bands own material. Post To Wire s title track, Vlautins slightly skewed, fumbled attempt at a straightforward love song, remains arguably their finest, most endearing moment amongst many, missing but not missing the album versions female co-vocals. Marking similar territory, Making It Back is a deft, spare portrait of homecoming and redemption.
As in concert, the Fontaine come across as a humble, self-effacing buncha guys. The Americana Blue Nile? Well, maybe; after all, in Because Of Toledo Paul Buchanan has already penned the best ever Richmond Fontaine song not written or performed by Richmond Fontaine. Willie Vlautin, master of the finely modulated emotional greyscale, writes lyrics that suggest a dustier Raymond Carver I was sorta on a darker spin when I wrote these songs, he explains unnecessarily; the noise the band make could be a rootsier version of Wilcos circa Being There. Just as well-recorded as it needs to be, it could be argued that this set adds naught to the studio originals except for some enthusiastic audience whooping, but its validated by the special sense of occasion fostered by the sound of a band meshing together in performance.
At one point Vlautin sings Summer In Siam plays on repeat again/We never get sick of it, and, just like that Pogues track, I wonder whether these sings will ever wear out. In a just world, when The Fitzgerald is finally granted the Deluxe Edition it so richly deserves this fabulous artefact should be the bonus disc.
RICHMOND FONTAINE / DOLOREAN Academy 3, Manchester 16 September 2009
Dolorean are represented tonight by singer/songwriter/guitarist Al James. He starts off well: given that I have “Live At The Old Quarter, Houston, Texas” in heavy rotation at the moment any bloke with an acoustic guitar is almost bound to sound a bit Townes Van Zandt to me, but James also demonstrates the occasional Ryan Adams inflection. He rather burns up his best material within his first three songs, though. When Richmond Fontaine’s keyboard player joins him for a song he claims is an attempt to write a narrative in the style of the headliners it comes off as a blackly comic murder ballad satire, evaporating in bathos at the key moment of revelation.
Richmond Fontaine’s narrative songs, though, are as superb as ever. Due to delays afflicting the release of its vinyl incarnation (not that I’m complaining too loudly, as it’s the first of the band’s eight albums to reach the format), I have yet to hear their new album “We Used To Think The Freeway Sounded Like A River”, but what they play of it tonight suggests I’m not going to be disappointed. Willie Vlautin’s spare storytelling style is still very much in evidence; it’s a testament both to both it and the clarity of sound tonight (heroically achieved without a soundcheck as the band were over at the BBC chatting with Marc Riley) that he keeps me hanging on every line. Although his songs aren’t quite the jump cuts they used to be – there’s a little more backstory to them nowadays, and often the barest suggestion of a conclusion as well – they rarely gather happiness along their narrative arcs. It seems as though these new songs use long instrumental sections to underline or open out their narratives emotionally, if more ambiguously than lyrics might, but the first old familiar they play, “Hallway”, does and always has done the same thing, ending with a huge, jagged, almost prog-like coda.
With new material taking precedence tonight, I don’t hear enough from the magisterial albums “Post To Wire” and “The Fitzgerald”, but, really, how much would be enough? They do play a predictably fabulous “Post To Wire”, though, alongside “Barely Losing” and “Making It Back”. “Four Walls” works itself into a climactic frenzy that produces the kind of euphoria that dance music is supposed to generate; it’s a phenomenal experience. In contrast, the earliest material played tonight is punkier, fuzzier, with distorted guitars and indecipherable lyrics, which, for this band, rather obliterates their purpose. Overall, though, they’re great tonight; maybe not as brilliant as when I saw them touring the “Thirteen Cities” album two years ago, but I expect familiarity with that new record would’ve narrowed the gap.
RICHMOND FONTAINE We Used To Think The Freeway Sounded Like A River (Diverse)
"We Used To Think The Freeway Sounded Like A River" is another predictably wonderful album from this Portland, Oregon based alt.country band. Willy Vlautin's blossoming second career as a novelist is reflected in the incrementally greater reach and variety of his songwriting here. His Raymond Carver-esque ability to hone and chip away at words until they convey the essence of a story as economically as possible shows in spades. These songs are tales of abandoned houses, dubious parenting, sickness and disease, families and relationships riven by forces external and internal and cycles of failure hardcoded into DNA. There's a subtle trace linking these songs together, that of people trying to, or trying hard not to, leave something behind. It's there in "The Boyfriends" ("Please I ain't like that/I ain't gonna be like that"); it's there in "Two Alone" (""You're gonna run"/Oh no I won't/"You'll be just like your dad"/Oh no I won't"); it's there in "A Letter To The Patron Saint Of Nurses" ("I said something/ And you started laughing so hard you fell back on the bed/See, it can be like that too").
Relentlessly grim as that may sound, these gripping narratives keep the attentive listener on the edge of their perch, desperate to learn what happens next. It's no disadvantage that they're set to a soundtrack of jangling, visceral, sometimes even joyous Americana: as a reference point imagine the "River"-era E Street Band playing the songs of "Nebraska" in a crowded bar.
What's not so good about this album? Well, given how the greater part of Richmond Fontaine's appeal is in Willie Vlautin's lyrics, its three instrumentals might appear to be indulgent filler. Still, they take up less than four minutes in total, so let's just classify them as atmospheric scene-setting. Also, I'm not convinced that it's quite as great as the best of the band's previous work, which for me would be "Post To Wire" or perhaps "The Fitzgerald", depending on how optimistic I'm feeling on the day. Judged by the less exacting standards, though, "We Used To Think The Freeway Sounded Like A River" is pretty much magnificent. It's my favourite album of 2009, and for those of you who enjoy music of an American singer-songwriterly persuasion I can't recommend it highly enough.
"We Used To Think The Freeway" is also the first of Richmond Fontaine's nine albums to be released on vinyl, brought to the black stuff with c are and attention by Diverse Records, the label spun off from arguably this island's finest record shop. They've done a very creditable job, enlisting experts to master and press this release. If it ultimately falls short of the kind of sonic delight labels such as Mobile Fidelity and Classic routinely wring from the format it's also around half the price of those companies' products.
RICHMOND FONTAINE / LAURA GIBSON Academy 3, Manchester 15 September 2011
Laura Gibson, a singer-songwriter from Portland, Oregon, is lovely, and not just because she’s wearing a dress that, from my vantage point, appears to be covered by illustrations of sheep. Accompanied by a multitasking percussionist/keyboard player, she brings a surprisingly full sound to her sweet-but-spooky hushed modern folk. If she ultimately lacks a little in the memorable tunes quota - in the unfortunate absence of her own quietly sparkling “Shadows On Parade” tonight’s highlight is a cover of Leadbelly’s “In The Pines” – her self-effacing wit goes a long way towards plugging the gap.
As Richmond Fontaine’s lead singer, songwriter, guitarist and all-round visionary Willy Vlautin announces, “We’ve got a new record out called “The High Country” and we’re going to play it for you…you poor devils”. To an extent the feeling’s mutual,. As is becoming traditional with Richmond Fontaine, the band are touring an album that’s only been available for days, and consequently I haven’t really been able to devote the attention to it that, being a Richmond Fontaine album, it richly deserves and demands. A single listen has left me disappointed: in a first for the band, the whole album is constructed like a novel for the ears (or, whisper it, a ‘concept album’). Unfortunately, its instrumental longueurs and narrative passages suggest that Vlautin, already an author of three excellent novels, is better suited to the short form as far as music’s concerned. There’s more in the way of plot and character development in the meticulously constructed songs found on any Richmond Fontaine album from 2004’s magnificent “Post To Wire” onwards, and playing the whole kit caboodle in concert serves to reinforce my opinion. There are some nice touches deployed to bring the album to life: Amy Boone of The Damnations plays the role of “the girl”, responsible for the lengthy opening monologue “Inventory”, and for “Driving Back To The Chainsaw Sea”, in which a character punches violently between radio stations whilst, um, driving back to the titular bar, the band play the various country and western logging classics he angrily dismisses. An ambitious failure, I can’t help thinking that it would have been better as a book.
They briefly leave the stage, but return for an erratic sprint around their back catalogue. “Post To Wire” justifies the evening on its own, employing Amy as co-vocalist, and “Four Walls” is all kinds of awesome; thunderous, heartfelt, literate and moving. “1968” and “Polaroid” are surprising but not unwelcome selections, although Amy forgets the words to her own song, “No Sign Of Water”.
It’s probably the least great Richmond Fontaine gig I’ve been to, but what does that mean, really? Simply that the competition is intense, and sometimes risk-taking doesn’t quite pay off.
RICHMOND FONTAINE / RICHARD BUCKNER / PETER BRUNTNELL The Met, Bury 3 May 2012
It shows how much I pay attention that, despite having listened to two of his albums, it’s only on hearing Peter Bruntnell’s between-song patter that it dawns on me that he’s actually British, so steeped in Americana is his music. (I suppose I should have realised sooner, given all those references to Bridgwater and Dover in his songs.) Played solo and acoustically tonight, though, his oeuvre seems sadly repetitive, despite deploying a pedal that conjures up sitar-styled drones (ragamericana?).
Richard Buckner’s long hair is modelled into something like ponytails, but his bulky blue collar figure suggests he’s unlikely to get much hassle about his hairstyle. He plays electric guitar, using a pedal-powered sampling device that at times allows as many as three overlaid guitar lines. His songs either seem to be multi-part suites or he’s jump-cutting between shorter ones; when he explains that he works “in clusters” the latter explanation seems the more likely. For all this innovation, as with Mr Bruntnell before him his music sounds a little one-dimensional, perhaps of more interest with a band backing him up.
Richmond Fontaine are normally a band, but tonight they’re down to a duo of Willy Vlautin and Dan Eccles. It’s more than sufficient to demonstrate why they’re headlining, though. Willy sings, plays acoustic guitar and brings the brilliant songs and Dan provides the tonal colour that’s been bleached out of the rest of the evening: harmonica, lap steel and all kinds of sounds wrought and wrestled from his electric guitar, including tremulous, steel guitar-style vibrato and Sonic Youth-y white noise. Much is played from their future classic album “We Used To Think The Freeway Sounded Like A River”, and in response to a fan’s request the fragmentary “(Postcard)” narratives from the “Post To Wire” album are interspersed throughout the set. The only low points are the songs drawn from latest long player “The High Country”, a rare misstep in their mostly fabulous discography. Also, due to the crowded schedule, they’re still on stage when I have to make a dash for the last tram outta Bury. Sorry, but when you gotta go you gotta go (or else you have to stay all night).
I must say a word or two for the Met, which looks and sounds like a lovely, civilised venue; it just needs to be a little more public transport-friendly.